Shiny Shelf


The Martians and Us

By Eddie Robson on 19 November 2006

The art of scheduling isn’t dead at BBC4, where they still know how to string together some programmes on a common theme and make a good season out of it. The centrepiece of its British sci-fi season is this documentary series, tracing the lineage of British sci-fi over three broad categories: dystopias, armageddon and this first programme on evolution.

Grouping the subject matter into genres is a tactic often used to hone down a large subject, or just break out of the more typical chronological format. However, it tends to come with its own problems, and ‘The Martians and Us’ certainly demonstrates this: ‘The Time Machine’ is about evolution, but it is also dystopian. A full discussion of John Wyndham in a single episode is impossible, because ‘The Midwych Cuckoos’ belongs here but presumably ‘The Day of the Triffids’ will fall under armageddon.

Furthermore, when each episode covers the full span of SF history it can seem disproportionate to focus heavily on one author: most of the first half focuses on H.G. Wells – who, though undoubtedly massively important, makes the first half seem top-heavy (and he’s blithely described as the first British SF writer, with no discussion of earlier candidates such as Mary Shelley, because this neatly fits the through-line the programme wants to create). It momentarily appears that the programme is going to develop a non-chronological thematic flow when it skips forward to discuss the influence of Wells on ‘Doctor Who’, but this turns out not to be the format after all.

But overall this was a good documentary, with an impressive selection of talking heads who generally have a good idea of what they’re talking about. A lot of discussion of British science fiction slips into snide comparison with the dominant American brand (concluding that ours is better because it’s ‘darker’), which I feel does it a disservice. This programme largely avoids that, acknowledging the American influence on British sci-fi and vice versa. It’s true that the psychologies behind British and American science fiction are different, but this is a point of interest rather than a point to be scored.

It’s a little on the light side (as BBC4 documentaries often are, which sort of defeats the point of BBC4), but as a tone-setter for the season it works well, and was appropriately followed by a repeat of BBC4’s pretty decent remake of the long-lost ‘A For Andromeda’ (see, scheduling. Clever. Take note, other channels). All of which makes you wish the BBC would do a bit of sci-fi more often.


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By Eddie Robson




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