Robots on the Rampage and Other Stories: Future Tense Revisited

In late 1984, BBC2 screened a short season of science fiction films under the umbrella title Future Tense that made a strong impact on my teenage self. As a child of the Star Wars generation and with the original trilogy heading off into the sunset (with no certainty that it’d ever return), I started to explore Hollywood’s rich back catalogue of futurist cinema and this season of films was a natural starting point. For many years, I couldn’t remember exactly which films made up the season; my memory was largely based on a TV trailer that I had a copy of for many years. Placed on a Sony E-180 Betamax tape between a pirate copy of E.T. and a couple of episodes of Blake’s 7, the trailer showed clips from Westworld, Dark Star, Demon Seed, Logan’s Run and The Man Who Fell to Earth, set to a groovy piece of library music and ending with a BBC announcer gleefully declaring, “Robots on the rampage…” as he introduced the broadcast of Westworld to start the season.

For a long time, I asked around my friends and scoured the internet to find out the complete line-up of the Future Tense season, but to no avail. However, recently I have been able to find the information I need on the BBC’s Genome resource, which records British TV listings from years gone by… and it came as something of a surprise! For one thing, I mustn’t have watched all of the films in the series, for although I have strong memories of Phase IV, The Man Who Fell to Earth etc, I’m pretty sure I’ve never seen The Final Programme and if I did watch Deathwatch and Nightwing, they mustn’t have made too much impact on me, because I can recall nothing about them. My original plan was to re-watch the entire season from beginning to end, but that was easier said than done; I have many of the films on DVD or Blu-Ray and I was able to pick up a copy of The Final Programme quite cheaply, but both Deathwatch and Nightwing seem to be mostly out of circulation and there are no copies on YouTube or Netflix. So, what follows is an almost complete nostalgia trip around most of the films that made up Future Tense.

Westworld was one of 2 films that I’d seen prior to this season (the other being Logan’s Run) and I was already a fan; I’d stayed up late to watch it with my brother one night and was mesmerised by Michael Crichton’s story of a futuristic theme park gone wrong. I’m a fan of all of the films that Crichton directed himself and I think he’s very unfairly judged, particularly for his later works like Looker and Runaway. I also, rather controversially, prefer the original Westworld to the more recent TV series; the HBO show takes a very simple idea and stretches it into a pompous, overblown saga, whereas the movie is a perfect little gem that runs to exactly the right length – it’s like taking a really good short story and infinitely stretching it into a 10-part series of doorstop novels. I’ve seen criticism of Yul Brynner’s iconic gunslinger character because he’s basically wearing his outfit from The Magnificent Seven, but isn’t that exactly what you’d do if you were setting up a western theme park – use characters the public were familiar with? For my money this is one of the best sci-fi films of the 70s.

The Man Who Fell to Earth is remembered these days primarily for David Bowie’s performance as the titular extra terrestrial and secondarily for Nicholas Roeg’s mind-bending direction, but little credit is given to Walter Tevis, who wrote the book upon which the film is based. Tevis wrote only 2 sci-fi novels, The Man Who Fell to Earth and Mockingbird, and as surprising as it might seem, Roeg’s film version of the former is remarkably faithful to the novel. It’s only in later years that I realised the title is a play on words, because the alien Newton ‘falls to Earth’ not because he is a visitor from the stars but because he succumbs to all of the temptations of our world – fame, money, sex, alcohol – and his noble mission to save his own planet is forgotten. I’m pretty sure that the version of The Man Who Fell to Earth shown as part of Future Tense was slightly edited by the BBC, as I don’t remember some of the more… let’s say anatomical close ups being in it. I’m not sure I understood The Man Who Fell to Earth when I was 14 but, much like 2001: A Space Odyssey, I recognised that I was watching something exceptional.

Skipping over 1980’s Deathwatch, which I haven’t been able to locate a copy of, we have the 1977 film Demon Seed, based on the novel of the same name by Dean Koontz. The story tells of a revolutionary artificial intelligence PROTEUS IV, which becomes obsessed by the wife of its creator, played by Julie Christie, imprisoning her in the house and even trying to develop a way of reproducing with her. At its heart, it’s a pretty grim story of abduction and imprisonment, only with a computer as the villain of the piece instead of a human being. It’s attractively directed by Donald Cammell, whose previous film was Performance almost 10 years earlier and coincidentally co-directed with Nicholas Roeg, the director of The Man Who Fell to Earth. Demon Seed was released just over a month before Star Wars and, like a lot of science fiction films made around that time, was swept aside by the tidal wave of popularity that surrounded George Lucas’ space opera saga and quickly disappeared from cinemas.

Back in 1973, we have The Final Programme, based on a novel by Michael Moorcock and starring Jon Finch as his iconic character Jerry Cornelius. Mankind’s time on Earth is coming to an end and Professor Cornelius has developed a process for creating an immortal superbeing to replace it; however, he dies before he can run the final programme and his son, foppish secret agent Jerry Cornelius, is charged with recovering the microfilm containing his research. Director Robert Feust directs with a style honed on the Dr Phibes films, but he’s not helped by a lurching, uncertain script that’s never sure if it’s a drama or a comedy.  The Final Programme is a trippy hangover from the 60s that looks old-fashioned next to the other sci-fi movies that were being made in 1973 and positively antiquated when compared to the movies that came along 3 or 4 years later. It tanked at the box office and it’s easy to see why; it’s difficult to follow and offers no explanations for some of its key plot points, ending with a twist that should be profound but is actually rather silly. It’s possible I did start watching it in 1984, but just got bored with it.

From the following year we have Phase IV, the sole directorial effort of Saul Bass, a graphic designer renowned for his work on the title sequences of films such as Spartacus and Psycho. The film deals with a stellar event that causes the common ant to evolve rapidly, forming a hive mind and a massive colony under the Nevada Desert from which they plan to overthrow the human race. By the time a human research team becomes aware of the occurrence, it is already too late. In keeping with a lot of sci-fi films of the late-60s and early-70s, Phase IV has a fatalistic view of mankind’s ability to combat anything outside our understanding. In an age before computer animation, the film makes superb use of real ants, filmed by wildlife photographer Ken Middleham, coaxing a surprising performance out of the little critters. Bass’s design credentials come to the fore in scenes within the ant colony, which are both terrifying and trippy. Not a film to watch if you have a fear of creepy-crawlies, but I’ve always loved it.

John Carpenter’s Dark Star was something of a revelation to me. Sci-fi comedy was enjoying something of a renaissance in the early 80s with the global success of The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, but few apart from Douglas Adams seemed to have the knack of getting it right. Little did I know that the writer of Alien and the director of Escape from New York had created a pitch-perfect sci-fi comedy back in 1973. Starting life as a student film but spinning off into a feature, Dark Star is a black comedy about a crew of bored astronauts aboard a ship charged with blowing up unstable planets; with talking bombs, an (un)dead Captain and a beach ball shaped alien, it’s genuinely unique and very funny. It’s also endlessly quotable; I remember my friend Ben and I at school after seeing this batting back and forth great tracts of Pinback’s dialogue (a character played by the writer Dan O’Bannon). It was a few years later, upon reading Ray Bradbury’s The Illustrated Man, that I realised the ending of Dark Star spoofs his story Kaleidoscope – but if I’d known, that probably would have just made it even funnier!

I was aware of Logan’s Run before this season, having seen both the film and the short-lived TV series and being a firm fan. I’ve always felt a bit sorry for the 1976 movie because although it did well at the box office, saving MGM from going into receivership, it was almost instantly outdated when Star Wars came along the following year. Based on a novel by Twilight Zone alumni William F. Nolan and George Clayton Johnson, Logan’s Run has a killer precept: in the 23rd century, everyone lives a shut-in life of hedonistic luxury, but must face death by Carousel at the age of 30 (changed from 21 in the novel to allow for slightly more experienced actors). Before that movie came along a year later, Logan’s Run probably had the best special effects that Hollywood had seen since 2001: A Space Odyssey and it has some impressive acting talent, with Michael York, Jenny Agutter, Richard Jordan and a young Farrah Fawcett all putting in memorable turns. However, Peter Ustinov as the unnamed Old Man effortlessly steals every single scene he’s in. Great stuff.

The season ended with Nightwing, which I haven’t been able to locate a copy of and don’t remember too much about (if indeed I actually saw it). I’ve listed the full line-up below for those of you that like lists. Future Tense was a terrific season of films that has left a lasting impression on me; there are occasionally seasons of sci-fi films these days, particularly on Film4, but they never seem to have the same impact. Maybe it was something about the sci-fi of the 70s that just grabbed my imagination and wouldn’t let go. So, here’s to Future Tense from us here, in the future… which is nowhere near as exciting as we thought it would be in 1984.

Westworld 30/09/1984
The Man Who Fell to Earth 07/10/1984
Deathwatch 14/10/1984
Demon Seed 04/11/1984
The Final Programme 11/11/1984
Phase IV 18/11/1984
Dark Star 25/11/1984
Logan’s Run 02/12/1984
Nightwing 09/12/1984

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