BBC Four, Mondays at 9.00pm from 13-27 November
DIRECTOR: Lucie Donahue
The British are almost as good at SF as they are at queuing. The cultural dominance of American blockbusters obscures that fact sometimes, but it’s true. That’s as it should be, since it was Herbert George Wells who invented the modern genre.
The great thing about this three-part documentary series, airing as part of BBC Four’s Science Fiction Britannia season (click here for more details), is not just that it blows Blighty’s trumpet, but that it examines what’s unique about our SF tradition - its greyness, its pessimism, its stoicism - and how that’s informed by both our national character and our recent history. It does so with pleasing simplicity by discussing all of British SF in terms of three recurring themes: evolution, utopias/dystopias, and tales of disaster. At first, that seems monstrously reductive, but you soon realise that most of the key works can be popped in one pigeonhole or another.
Too often nowadays, “documentaries” are just clip shows stuffed with rent-a-quote non-entities who’ve just read a brief on what they’re meant to be talking about. Not so The Martians and Us, which features a Who’s Who of British SF, from the late Nigel Kneale to China Mieville, via Arthur C Clarke. It’s written by people who know their onions well enough to neatly draw a line from HG Wells to Doctor Who, or from John Wyndham to 28 Days Later. While it touches all the obvious bases (The Time Machine, Nineteen Eighty Four...) it also shines a light on more obscure works, such as Swastika Night and The Purple Cloud. And though archive clips and newly-shot “dramatisations” help to bring many of the books discussed to life, the programme makers wisely remember that the best way to illustrate great writing is often simply to read it out loud .
Educational without being snobby, accessible without being trite, The Martians and Us will leave you full of patriotic pride, and eager to read.
Reviewer: Ian Berriman