Kim Newman on... The Terrornauts
RT Obscura 15: Exploring colourful sci-fi lost to the ages.
RT Obscura, the exclusive column by renowned critic Kim Newman, sees the writer plumbing the depths of the RT archive in search of some forgotten gems. In his 15th column, Kim explores the colourful sci-fi, The Terrornauts.
Milton Subotsky, the creative mind behind Amicus films, was a long-time science-fiction fan -- which explains his intermittent, peculiar attempts at getting away from the horror anthologies which were the company's usual fare (Dr Terror's House of Horrors, Asylum, Tales From the Crypt, etc) by producing adaptations of pulp stories he presumably remembered fondly. That's how Joseph Millard's wonderfully-titled but extremely obscure novel The Gods Hate Kansas got turned into Freddie Francis's plodding They Came From Beyond Space in 1967. And that mini-epic needed an even cheaper supporting feature, so veteran sci-fi author Murray Leinster's The Wailing Asteroid (1960) earned The Terrornauts, scripted by then-hot writer John Brunner (Stand on Zanzibar, The Sheep Look Up) -- roughly the science-fiction equivalent of asking James Ellroy to adapt an Agatha Christie novel -- and directed by veteran B-picture specialist Montgomery Tully (The House in Marsh Road, Battle Beneath the Earth).
Leinster must have thought he was on a hot streak -- since another of his books (The Monster From Earth's End) had just been filmed as The Navy vs the Night Monsters, but unaccountably Stanley Kubrick looked to Arthur C. Clarke when he was searching for 'the best science fiction writer in the world' and Leinster's stock slipped in post-2001: A Space Odyssey cinema. The results look extremely quaint now, though it's worth noting that, though the TV serial A for Andromeda was a precedent, The Terrornauts is among the first sci-fi films to deal with the Search for Extra-terrestrial Intelligence-type set-up later seen in the likes of Species and Contact.
The opening scenes have a cartoonish but neverthless accurate grasp of how cutting edge science gets done, or thwarted. Staid hero Dr Joe Burke (Simon Oates, in almost exactly the same performance he later gave as the macho boffin in Doomwatch) and sidekicks Ben Keller (Stanley Meadows, a fixture on every 1960s British TV series who also pops up in Performance) and Sandy Lund (Zena Marshall) have to play politics to get time on a radio telescope despite the opposition of impatient observatory boss Dr Shore (Max Adrian) and overseen by Yellowlees (Charles Hawtrey), an accountant who quibbles at spending £75 on a radio component but is taken by the idea that if he's in the room when mankind makes first contact with an alien species he'll get his picture in the papers.