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Babylon 5.1
by Rick Norwood

SF on TV
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Ratings
Ratings are based on a four star system.
One star means that the commercials are more entertaining than the program.
Two stars watch if you have nothing better to do.
Three stars is good solid entertainment.
Four stars means you never dreamed television could be this good.

Metropolis
Alphaville
Destination Moon
Things to Come
The Thing
The Day the Earth Stood Still
When Worlds Collide
War of the Worlds
Invaders from Mars
This Island Earth
Forbidden Planet
The Time Machine
Journey to the Center of the Earth

Witchblade. 9PM Tuesdays. TNT. Who knew? Watch it. More news in fifteen.

What to watch in August? Get real. It is, after all, August. You might want to give The Infinite Worlds of H.G. Wells a try, on the newly named Hallmark Channel, on August 5 and 7. Nah! On second thought Wells wasn't at his best in his short stories. Novels were his forte.

But, speaking of H. G. Wells...

Since there is nothing on TV, I'd like to talk briefly about 50s science fiction films. I've seen them all. I love them all. A few of them are actually worth watching.

Most histories of SF movies are either drenched with nostalgia, gushing about how wonderful Metropolis is, or else sodden with snobbery, proclaiming Alphaville the greatest SF film of all time. The truth is that Metropolis and Alphaville would both bore you to tears. Metropolis has marvellous special effects but a dumb story. Alphaville has a dumb story and no special effects at all (automobiles represent spaceships, for example). The only SF film before 1950 that is still fun to watch, if a bit creaky, is the 1936 film Things to Come, with a screenplay by H.G. Wells.

To avoid any arguments about genre, for my purposes SF films are about Voyages Extraordinary, boldly going where no man has gone before. Puttering around the lab to see what's on the slab is horror.

H.G. Wells wrote two screenplays, Things to Come and The Man Who Could Work Miracles, one SF, one fantasy, both with moments of greatness.

At this point I have to admit that all SF films before Star Trek and Star Wars have boring spots. Star Wars, in particular, was orders of magnitude more entertaining that any SF film up to that time. But Things to Come has some very good bits, while all other SF before 1950 is a pain to sit through -- unless you count the Flash Gordon serials -- but then you have to be stoned. In any case, we've had the obligatory mention of Metropolis and Things to Come. Onward into the 50s!

The first Technicolor SF film was Destination Moon, written by Robert A. Heinlein, produced by a major studio with state-of-the-1950s-art special effects and released with a major publicity campaign. It was a commercial success, won the 1950 Oscar for special effects, and ushered in the film era fondly known as 50s science fiction. "Having been in hibernation for hundreds of thousand years, I know little of these 50s science fiction films of which you speak." Destination Moon remains an intelligent, adult movie, and some of the special effects still look wonderful, notably a scene of the rocket as it turns tail downward in space to come in for a landing on the moon.

Heinlein's only other movie, the low-budget, black-and-white Operation Moonbase, is both godawful and kinda cute. Bradbury's SF film, It Came From Outer Space, is also a low-budget black and white, but it has its moments.

Back to the short list of really good stuff.

The success of Destination Moon in 1950 led to a spate of roughly one big-budget Hollywood SF film a year, of generally declining budget and quality, which dried up in 1960.

Watching Destination Moon, America learned for the first time that space was a vacuum, that people in orbit were weightless, that rockets did not need anything to push against, and that the surface of the moon did not look like the California desert. Life, Look, Time, and Popular Mechanics carried articles marvelling at these revelations, which SF readers had learned decades earlier at the knee of Hugo Gernsback and John W. Campbell.

In 1951 there were two serious films about invasions from outer space. They took opposite points of view as to who were the good guys and who were the bad guys. The Thing and The Day the Earth Stood Still were both black and white, both had first rate directors, both were loosely based on stories from Astounding, both discarded the twist ending that was the whole point of the original story. The Day the Earth Stood Still, directed by Robert Wise, the big-budget critically-well-received one, introduced "Klaatu barada nicto" into the SF vocabulary. The Thing, directed by Howard Hawks and dreadfully jingoistic, is more fun. I love the way people talk while other people are talking.

Also in 1951 was When Worlds Collide, based on the 1934 bestselling novel by Philip Wylie. In 1953 we watched War of the Worlds, whose Martian war machines have become SF icons. Both have exceedingly pessimistic views of human nature. Both are enjoyable today.

The low-budget 1953 film, Invaders from Mars, directed by the once great director of Things to Come, William Cameron Menzies, has a great first 15 minutes, in which a young boy discovers that his parents have been taken over by aliens. The rest of the movie is unwatchable. It was filmed in colour, but most videotapes of it are in black and white.

In 1954, the big budget SF film was Disney's 2000 Leagues Under the Sea, with a marvellous submarine and hammy acting by Kirk Douglas, Peter Lorie, and James Mason. Also in 1954 was Conquest of Space, with a rotten script but beautiful special effects. It introduced filmgoers to the idea of a space station shaped like a wheel, which rotated to provide simulated gravity. (Operation Moonbase also had a space wheel, but since few people saw it, it doesn't count.)

In 1955 and 1956, Hollywood SF ventured outside our solar system for the first time, in This Island Earth and Forbidden Planet. Today, these are the two most consistently entertaining of the 50s SF films, though you have to grimace at their 50s attitudes toward issues of sex and gender. Forbidden Planet was also the first Hollywood film to be set in the distant future. Audiences were becoming a little more sophisticated.

It is sobering to realize that the key special effects sequence in Forbidden Planet, which used top Disney animators and was the most awe-inspiring special effect American movie audiences had ever seen, was recreated as a lark for an episode of Babylon 5.

After putting its toe into interplanetary waters in This Island Earth and Forbidden Planet, Hollywood hurried back to the more familiar shores of home. There was not another major space film for more than 10 years, when Kubrick dreamed of an Odyssey. By that time, Gene Roddenberry had taken a Wagon Train to the stars, and Outer Space had become as familiar to Americans as their own back yard. In fact, to the average American, Outer Space was our own back yard, and we were about to go there in earnest.

The only other big-budget Technicolor SF films from this era are earthbound adaptations of classics from the previous century: Journey to the Center of the Earth (1959) and The Time Machine (1960). Both have memorable moments: the rock falling into the phosphorescent pool in Journey and the marvellous Time Machine itself. Both have long awkward stretches that will make a modern audience squirm.

And that was the end of 50s science fiction. It would be 8 long years before Hollywood produced another major science fiction film. The next big development would be on television.

Currently available on DVD:
Things To Come

Destination Moon

When Worlds Collide

War of the Worlds

This Island Earth

Forbidden Planet

The Time Machine

Copyright © 2001 Rick Norwood

Rick Norwood is a mathematician and writer whose small press publishing house, Manuscript Press, has published books by Hal Clement, R.A. Lafferty, and Hal Foster. He is also the editor of Comics Revue Monthly, which publishes such classic comic strips as Flash Gordon, Sky Masters, Modesty Blaise, Tarzan, Odd Bodkins, Casey Ruggles, The Phantom, Gasoline Alley, Krazy Kat, Alley Oop, Little Orphan Annie, Barnaby, Buz Sawyer, and Steve Canyon.


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