By Keith M. Johnston, co-investigator
In my last post – on special effects and early Eastman Colour – I commented on the fact that science fiction films have long been associated with a display of spectacular visual effects. But that got me thinking – while colour cinema has also been associated with spectacle, the dominant approach to British science fiction in the first decade of the Eastman Colour era (1955 through 1965) is a celebration of the small, low budget, black-and-white nature of such films. I.Q. Hunter sums up this attitude best:
‘insular, small-scale, black-and-white scare stories… These films show British SF at its best. Sober, small scale, noirish and unsensational’ (Hunter 2013, 50)
So, while Hammer is often celebrated for relaunching the British horror genre with colourful verve and invention, its sister genre of British sci-fi remained small-scale and monochrome. Yet this ignores the Eastman Colour sci-fi films that the British film industry did produce between 1955 and 1965: films that are not perfect by any means, but which deserve a little more attention and respect for how they attempted to match colour with a larger science fiction canvas.
[I’ve discussed elsewhere the difficult of trying to define the breadth of films that can be covered by the term ‘science fiction’ (Johnston 2011). For the purposes of this post, suffice to say the films selected below are described as ‘Adventure’ or ‘Fantasy’ as often as ‘Sci-Fi’ in our project database]
Take Satellite in the Sky (1956), for instance: the first British colour science fiction film (advertised in WarnerColor, a ‘rebadged’ version of Eastmancolor). Shot in CinemaScope at New Elstree for the Danziger brothers, the film also had special effects by Wally Vermer, who had worked on Things to Come (1936) but would become most associated with 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968).
Satellite is a supposedly realistic take on space travel, with a British rocket heading into orbit to test a deadly new weapon, in the (likely futile) hope of convincing the world not to use such weapons. While much of the film is focused on the relationships of the crew and those left on Earth – where colour is more broadly naturalistic, or featured in women’s costumes – colour cinematography is used in subtle but genre-specific ways as the film shifts to its launch and outer space elements. The design of the rocket itself is sleek and silver, but with fluted blue engine nacelles, and red on both the nosecone and those rocket engines; the engines thrust out clouds of pink sparks and smoke; while the effects of acceleration as the rocket takes off are accentuated with green and red lighting that plays over the astronauts. While aiming for a ‘realistic’ view of space travel, associating colour with the rocket and the space experiences of the astronauts highlights the film’s links to science fiction in other media, notably comic books and book cover art.
After Satellite in the Sky, British science fiction is less obvious to spot, although a case can be made for The Curse of Frankenstein (1957) given it focuses on scientific experiments as much as the potentially horrific creations. ‘Mad’ scientist / monster movies such as Konga (1961) and Gorgo (1961) foreground some colour in costume and set design, but the most obvious use tends to be in the final scenes of the monsters rampaging round London – orange flames and explosions become a key colour component across such effects-led spectacle.
Continuing on a monster note, there is the much derided The Day of the Triffids (Sekely, 1962). This is a film whose reputation has suffered over the years, at least in part because of its notorious mangling of John Wyndham’s revered novel.
However, it is an adaptation that benefits considerably from the addition of colour in specific scenes. Most notably, the meteor shower that blinds most of the population gains its unearthly purple-blue hue from the Eastman Colour photography; the first Triffid attack (in a greenhouse) is bathed in a series of red and green tones; while the green bodied Triffids lurch across the screen with pink-red-yellow ‘heads’ waving around – their menace partly heightened through colour.
It seems, then, that colour is used in these films in a sparing way, opting to place colour in specific (and often genre-related) scenes, but otherwise relying on a more naturalistic palette within which the science fiction premise can take hold.
And then, right at the end of this period, there is Dr Who and the Daleks (1965), which completely ignores such ideas and opts to fill the screen with as much colour as possible, all of it directly related to genre staples.
This adaptation embraces colour as its central spectacular addition to the original Doctor Who television serial. Producer Milton Subotsky stated the film would ‘make full use of the colour, spectacle and action that make the difference between large and small screen entertainment’ (Todd 1965, 12) – and the film fully delivers on that plan. Everything about the film pushes its colour: the TARDIS is seen in its dark blue livery for the first time; the interior of the TARDIS is a mess of tangled coloured wires and switches; the petrified forest the TARDIS lands in is bathed in blue and green light; the corridors of the Dalek city are pink-peach in colour, but with metallic blue, pink and green foil wall-coverings; the peaceful Thals are dressed in yellow and green outfits, topped with shimmering purple cloaks…
And the Daleks themselves? They are resplendent in a range of colours: blue-and silver versions dominate, with red-and-black and black-and-gold superiors, all speeding around a 60s day-glo control room replete with lava lamps and massive colourful control panels.
It may have black-and-white roots, but with Dr Who & the Daleks, British science fiction film fully committed to the shift to colour, and the genre never looked back. From subsequent films like Thunderbirds are Go (1966) and Quatermass and the Pit (1967) through Night of the Big Heat (1967) and They Came From Beyond Space (1968), colour and British science fiction had fully melded together.
I.Q. Hunter, Trash Cinema. London: BFI/Palgrave Macmillan, 2013.
Keith M. Johnston, Science Fiction: A Critical Introduction. London: Berg, 2011.
Derek Todd, ‘A Dalek is (now) a many splendored thing’ Kine Weekly, April 8 1965, p12.