The Age of Innocence – “Sensawunda” and the Older Science Fiction Fan

Older sci-fi/SF fans (or “fen”, to give them their correct title), almost all have an incredibly developed Sense of Wonder, more often referred to in the SF world as “sensawunda”, that wide-eyed innocence and boundless enthusiasm, that willingness to see beyond the mundane world around us and embrace the infinite potential and possibilities of the universe, of all time and space.

It’s almost like a special extra sense, an ability to link to our “inner child”, something that makes us different from the rest of the mainstream “mundane” population, who seem to have lost that link to their childhood once they became adults. Many of those people would look at us and consider us “big kids”, adults who have refused to grow up and drop the obsessions and attitudes of childhood (or even something much less flattering). We, on the other hand, look at them and consider them boring, unimaginative old farts, having lost all the childish aspects that made life fun, and growing old long before their time.

Our sensawunda keeps us forever young. Unfortunately, very few of the younger generation these days seem to have it, at least once they grow out of the wide-eyed innocence of their childhood years. We older fen were instilled with a powerful essence of sensawunda from a time before we could even read or write. The kids these days have seen it all a thousand times, and have had everything handed to them since birth. They lose their sensawunda at a very early age, and today’s teenagers are for the most part very worldly-wise, cynical, and almost impossible to impress.

All of the things we saw on TV and at the cinema, way back when they were new and ground-breaking, are part of background culture for these kids. They don’t see anything remarkable about these great films and TV series, because they’ve “always been there”, as far as the kids are concerned. They miss out totally on one of the greatest aspects of geekhood, and we older geeks are so, so lucky to have lived through it all.

Back “when we were young”, every new sci-fi series, every new sci-fi cinema release, every new book release by Arthur C. Clarke, Isaac Asimov or other top SF writers, every new issue of the Spider-Man Comics Weekly, The Avengers, The Mighty World of Marvel, Countdown and TV Action, Lion and Thunder or any of our favourite comics, any and all of these geek objects were things of wonder, and we all waited on them obsessively, like addicts waiting on their next fix (but in a nice way, of course).

I try to compare cynical modern teens with the wide-eyed innocence and enthusiasm of my teenage self, sitting eagerly in front of the TV every week, waiting for the next episode of Star Trek or Doctor Who. Or sitting in the local cinema, mouth wide open, watching Star Wars for the first time, and listening in awe to the tie fighters roar all around me over the amazing new THX sound system. In the pre-video, pre-internet age, every new sci-fi TV series and sci-fi cinema release was SPECIAL. The newness and uniqueness of it all was overpowering.

In those far-off days, you saw a series episode or film ONCE, and then they were gone, forever. Now, with DVDs, streaming and all the modern recording techniques, you can watch anything, over and over again a hundred times. It may be amazingly convenient, and none of us would be without it, but it has also played a huge part in killing the magic, the sensawunda. It’s all become as common as muck, so easily accessible and available. There’s nothing special about any of it any more.

The current generation of kids, at least here in the West, are spoiled rotten. All of this great technology and sci-fi culture has been around since long before they were born, and they’ve grown up with it as an integral part of their lives. But you know the old saying – “Familiarity Breeds Contempt” – they just don’t appreciate it. It’s no big deal to them. We older fen, on the other hand, we were there when Star Trek first appeared in the 1960’s, when Star Wars ushered in the era of blockbuster sci-fi movies in the late-1970’s. Before that, with only a handful of exceptions, sci-fi movies were cheap B-movies, sneered at by everyone except the hardcore fans.

We were there for the first appearances of Blake’s 7, Battlestar Galactica, Blade Runner, Alien, and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. We were there when all of these great television shows and films (which are now familiar cultural icons) were new, fresh, and NOBODY had ever seen anything like them before. Some of us were even there for the first appearance of Doctor Who (although I don’t remember anything about it, as it was two weeks before my third birthday!). And the oldest fans were there for the three original Quatermass TV serials – The Quatermass Experiment (1953), Quatermass II (1955) and Quatermass and the Pit (1958), Captain Video and His Video Rangers, and even the sci-fi “pulps”. Well before my time, and I’m so envious of them.

All of us older fans, we’re starting to get on a bit (I’m 53). But the one great thing about being middle-aged or older is that we lived through the truly great eras of nearly EVERYTHING – sci-fi TV and cinema, the growth and explosion into popular culture of SF literature, the great eras of US and UK comics, and the great popular music eras of the 1950’s, 60’s, 70’s and 80’s. We are SO lucky. We’re the most fortunate of all, because we lived through the one, true geek generation. We’ll never see its like again.

The kids these days missed out on all of that, and will NEVER experience anything like it. There are so many bright, shiny new fads these days, massive marketing machines making sure that they happen seemingly one right after another. And each of them lasts all of five minutes until the next one comes along. Nothing is unique or special any more. They’ve seen it all before.

To be honest, I’m not overly enthusiastic about the rapidly looming advance of my “senior years”. But being a geek is the one area in life where I can honestly say “It’s great to be old”. 🙂

Sci-Fi on Television (Part 1)

I’m a big fan of sci-fi on television, which I almost always refer to by its “proper” name, telefantasy. The 1950s-1990s were, in my opinion, the Golden Age of telefantasy, and the first real telefantasy started about a decade or so before my birth (in December 1960), when Captain Video and His Video Rangers first appeared on US television in 1949, followed closely in the early 1950s by the likes of Space Patrol, Tom Corbett: Space Cadet and Rocky Jones: Space Ranger.

UK telefantasy was slightly slower to get off the mark, and it was mostly with one-offs like the 1949 adaptation of H. G. Wells’s The Time Machine and the prestigious 1954 adaptation of George Orwell’s 1984. The first ongoing, serialized sci-fi productions of any note were the three Quatermass serials which aired in 1953, 1955 and 1958. These were the first real stars of pre-Doctor Who UK telefantasy, and, in my opinion, the classic 1958 six-part serial Quatermass and the Pit remains, to this day, one of the greatest examples of telefantasy ever produced.

But those were all produced and televised well before I was born, and it’s only really been in more recent years that I’ve discovered and begun looking back at some of the much older telefantasy series, which aired in the years between the first appearance of Captain Video and His Video Rangers in 1949 and the very first episode of Doctor Who, in November 1963. It would be the mid-1960s before I started to show the first glimmers of interest in any kind of sci-fi on contemporary television.

I’ve been an avid viewer of sci-fi television of all kinds ever since the time that Doctor Who first began to register in my very young and impressionable mind around 1966-1967. But it was when Jon Pertwee first fell out of the Tardis at the beginning of Spearhead from Space, in January 1970, that marked the moment where I can definitely say that I made the leap from merely enjoying Doctor Who, to becoming an obsessive, life-long fan.

I also became a huge fan of the original Star Trek, which first appeared on UK television channel BBC1 in July 1969, and also the new live-action Gerry Anderson series UFO, which first aired on ITV in 1970. I’d previously watched, and enjoyed, the various Anderson puppet shows such as Captain Scarlet, Thunderbirds and Stingray, but I preferred the live shows, and UFO was where I first became a real Anderson fan.

By December 1970 (when I’d reached my tenth birthday), with Pertwee almost a year into his tenure on Doctor Who, Star Trek at the height of its popularity on BBC1, and UFO featuring prominently on ITV, I was now old enough to really start understanding and appreciating television sci-fi in general. These were the first three telefantasy series that I really got into, and it’s no big surprise that these series have always remained right at the very top of my list of favourites.

As I moved into the 1970s, things really started to heat up. I began to get heavily into other UK telefantasy series such as Timeslip, The Tomorrow People, Space: 1999, Blake’s 7 and Sapphire and Steel. I was also hooked on then-current 1970s US telefantasy such as the animated Star Trek, The Six Million Dollar Man, The Bionic Woman, Kolchak: The Night Stalker, Wonder Woman, The Incredible Hulk, Buck Rogers and Battlestar Galactica. And, of course, UK television was also awash with re-runs of the various Irwin Allen series, Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, Land of the Giants, The Time Tunnel and Lost in Space, plus re-runs of other classic US “cult” TV sci-fi series such as The Invaders, The Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits.

Take all these great telefantasy series, and the fact that the early 1970s marked the time that I was moving into my teens, and it was a great time for a young fan of sci-fi television like myself.

To Be Continued…

Classic British Telefantasy: My Top Ten Favourites (Part Two)

Here’s the second part of my rambling list of favourite Classic British Telefantasy series:

At Number Four is Sapphire and Steel, one of the strangest telefantasy series ever. Short on budget, hence relatively scarce (but effective) special effects, but oozing with quality writing, and oppressive, frightening mood and terror, this was a truly classic sci-fantasy series, featuring two of the most charismatic and mysterious central characters in telefantasy history, Sapphire (played by Joanna Lumley) and Steel (played by David McCallum). The sheer mystery, the fact that nobody ever found out who or what the main characters really were, where they came from, or what the hell was actually happening most of the time, added greatly to the attraction of the show. The fact that Sapphire and Steel was rarely repeated on television also added to the effect, as all we had to go on for many years were our fading memories. Luckily the series has been made available in recent years, firstly on VHS video, and then on DVD. And even more fortunately, it definitely lives up to our fond memories of the show.

At Number Three, it’s UFO, by far my favourite of the Gerry Anderson shows, not a stone’s throw from the top of my list of favourite British telefantasy series. First airing in 1970, and set in the not so far off future of 1980, the gorgeous hardware, the aliens, sexy women (those gorgeous moonbase babes – Gay Ellis, oh my poor heart!), and interesting characters were a huge attraction for a young boy like me. From an adult perspective, that totally kitsch, retro futuristic feel (unintended at the time, of course), gives UFO an undeniable charm that allows the series to still hold up really well today. The complex alternate-universe 1980-that-never-was, combining a mix-mash of styles from 1970 and the imagined future “1980” (which actually feels more mid- or late-21st Century) give it a retro but also an undefinable “sometime just a few years from now” feel which makes the show work even in 2013, although its version of a 1980 “future” is actually thirty-three years in our past.

At Number Two, it’s Quatermass. If there’s any British telefantasy that might give Doctor Who a run for it’s money, it has to be Quatermass. The original Quatermass serials were well before my time (I wasn’t born until 1960, and those serials appeared in 1953, 1955 and 1958), although I really enjoyed the three film versions and the 1979 Quatermass serial featuring John Mills as the Professor. Reading a number of excellent Quatermass articles in various telefantasy fanzines during the 1980s really fired up my interest in the original 1950s serials. I was also fortunate, at some point during the early 1980s, to come upon three books containing the scripts/teleplays of all three original 1950s serials (complete with nice b&w photos). I was hooked on the original serials even more by that time, and, just to complete the circle, soon afterwards I also bought the novelization of the 1979 serial. I was now a hardcore fan of Quatermass in all its forms, both serials and films.

A few years later, I was absolutely elated to get my hands on the VHS video release of the third (and the best of the three) 1950s serial, Quatermass and the Pit, and finally got to see what all the hype was about. I’d always loved the 1967 film version of Quatermass and the Pit, but the original serial absolutely blew my mind. It was way, way better than the film, and remains, to this day, my favourite ever single piece of British telefantasy. If the first two serials had been as good as the third (only two episodes of the first serial still exist), Quatermass might’ve made it to the Number One spot in my list. I was doubly delighted, about ten years ago, to get my hands on the excellent three-DVD release of The Quatermass Collection, featuring the beautifully restored Quatermass and the Pit, the entire (unrestored) Quatermass II, and the two surviving episodes of the Quatermass Experiment. This remarkable DVD set is an absolute treasure, and any British telefantasy fan worth their reputation should have a copy of this in their collections.

And finally, at Number One, it’s Doctor Who, just about my favourite telefantasy series of all time. I’ve been watching Doctor Who since I was five or six years old, way back in the mid-1960s. I like the modern version of Doctor Who, but not as much as the classic 1963-1989 series. I love the classic 1960s Hartnell and Troughton b&w stories, but my favourite Doctor Who eras were the Jon Pertwee years and the first half of Tom Baker’s run on the show. In my opinion, the Tom Baker/Philip Hinchcliffe years were, without a shadow of a doubt, the best ever in the show’s history. This show had (and still has) so much history, continuity and detail. The Doctor(s) and the Tardis, travelling anywhere in time and space, Daleks, Cybermen, Ice Warriors, Sutekh the Destroyer, Omega, the Master, the list goes on and on and on, spanning the alphabet, from Autons to Zarbi, Doctor Who is immense. It was a huge part of my growing up process from early childhood right up into adulthood and to the present day (I’m now 52), this is the British telefantasy series (indeed THE telefantasy series, British or not) that has had the biggest effect on my life.

And just outside the Top Ten, in no particular order:

The Avengers – I quite enjoyed the weekly exploits of John Steed and Emma Peel, and later Tara King (I was too young to remember the earlier stories with Cathy Gale). Emma and Tara were certainly extremely easy on the eyes, and those two ladies absolutely kicked ass each and every week. The series was extremely psychedelic (hey, it was the Sixties!) and was overly camp at times. I was never a fan of the camp thing (hated it, actually), a major reason why I didn’t enjoy the show quite as much as other UK telefantasy shows. I also quite liked The New Avengers, although it only occasionally crossed into telefantasy from its primary action adventure format. But it was worth watching for Joanna Lumley, playing Purdey, another gorgeous yet kick-ass Avengers female.

The Champions – enjoyable super-spy hokum in which three super-powered agents save the world each and every week from mad scientists and other menaces. I quite enjoyed this, although, with the exception of a handful of episodes, there was very little real sci-fi in the series, other than the agents showing their weekly portion of super strength, super speed or telepathy. I mostly liked it for the great theme tune and the epitome of eye candy provided by the absolutely gorgeous Alexandra Bastedo (who played Sharon McCready), who was, as far as I’m concerned, one of the most beautiful women ever in the history of telefantasy.

Thunderbirds – loved the hardware, but, unlike Captain Scarlet, most of the stories themselves were not sci-fi enough for my tastes, even at that early age. Also, and despite my liking for Captain Scarlet, I was never really a fan of those damned puppets. I hate those wooden actors! I always preferred the live-action Gerry Anderson series.

That’s about it for the more famous British telefantasy series. At some point in the future, I’ll be devoting one or more blog posts to other, more obscure British telefantasy, particularly series aimed at children. My own memories of most of these are very incomplete and vague, so I’ve been buying a few of the more recommended classic children’s sci-fi series on DVD from Amazon UK. So far, I’ve got my hands on the entire original series of The Tomorrow People, Timeslip, Sky, Children of the Stones, The Owl Service, The Demon Headmaster and the 1980s version of Tom’s Midnight Garden. I think I’ll nab a few more series so I can post a reasonably comprehensive blog review.