Kim Newman on... The Terrornauts
RT Obscura 15: Exploring colourful sci-fi lost to the ages.
Burke is obsessed because as a child he had a dream of an alien landscape (a hillside with two moons stuck on the sky) while clutching an alien crystal found inside an artefact turned up by his archaelogist uncle (Frank Forsyth). Also around the observatory is comedy relief tea-lady Mrs Jones (Patricia Hayes, of the well-remembered Play for Today Edna, the Inebriate Woman), who snorts, "people on other planets, I don't believe it -- it would have been in the papers and my husband would have told me."
Naturally, a signal is picked up from an asteroid (Schuler's Object) and Burke responds with a signal from Earth -- whereupon the film gives up on anything like credible science and a spaceship from the asteroid lowers over the observatory and plucks one of the buildings off the face of the planet, incidentally abducting the Star Talk astronomers, Yellowlees (who is worried about meeting people with tentacles) and Mrs Jones (who hopes they won't look like spiders). The building is set down on Schuler's Object, in an image we'd say was outdated if Doctor Who hadn't done something very similar with a hospital and the moon last season. The asteroid is home to a set that looks like a colour version of the cardboard minimalist futures visited by the Doctor in the show's early days -- Subotsky had written and produced the Peter Cushing Dalek movies -- and is inhabited by a trundling, antenna-waving, non-anthropomorphic robot operated by Robert Jewell (a Dalek on many 1960s Who serials). "In between the kidnapping of people, they must need somewhere to put their feet up, you think?" observes Mrs Jones of the spare décor, only for Keller to spook her further with the comment, "if they've got feet."
The model effects are childish, but charming -- they look like something from those early 1960s puppet shows (Space Patrol, Fireball XL5) -- but Elisabeth Lutyens' score has a burbling, spacey feel that gives even the ropiest, clunkiest toys-on-strings scenes a trace of wonder. There's play with pink and black box artefacts from an advanced civilisation, including one with a kitchen funnel stuck into it, and some alien foods which look like spiky fondant fancies. The Earth people pass elementary intelligence tests (naughty Brunner sneaks one line past the innocent Subotsky: "it's a kind of vibrator -- can't you feel it?"), run into a truly tacky alien animal (with a red maw, an eye in its side, a single crab claw, large suckers on its head and -- yes -- tentacles) which turns out to be an illusion created by the vibrator, find a blue skeleton wearing a white bathing cap with wires stuck to it (a moment that vaguely prefigures a scene in Alien) and occasionally step on a platform ("you'd call it a matter transposer") which teleports them to the two-mooned world -- where the fetching Sandy is nearly stabbed by turquoise-faced tribesmen in red robes ("virgin sacrifice to the gods of a ghastly galaxy," shrieks the American poster, rather overselling things) and Burke gets to be manly in effecting her prompt rescue. We get a reprise of the most notable effects shot in the film, as black smoke from an explosion drifts up into the sky and behind the painted moons.
In the finale, Burke puts on the bathing cap and plugs it into the sink funnel -- which enables him to read aloud a message from the former masters of the asteroid which warns about "creatures we now call The Enemy" that are coming in a space fleet (and have reduced a technological species to those turquoise-faced savages). The point of the signal is to summon folks to he asteroid so they can take the controls of the anti-spacefleet guns and blast 'The Enemy' before they can get to Earth. Despite complaints from Mrs Jones ("I don't want one of them readin' devices on my head, it's not long since I had a perm"), the three clever people put on bathing caps and plugs into funnels -- just in time to orchestrate a space battle against an arrow formation of Enemy model ships and get back home (well, a mountainside in France) in time for tea ("I've changed the transposer plate setting for Earth"). Mrs Jones gets the last word: "Never did think much of foreign parts!"
For some reason, The Terrornauts is among the most obscure, hard-to-see British science fiction films. It's a pantomime mix of earnest camp, so-feeble-it's-funny-again comic relief, proper science fiction ideas, cheapskate nonsense and surprising charm. Yes, objectively, it's bad -- but it's bad in an innocent 1967 manner that still has a peculiar appeal.