By Isaac Asimov
Adapted by Meade Roberts
Mark Annuncio is a genius at making connections between often seemingly unrelated facts. He is one of a rare breed of humans called Mnenomics. He is also utterly unable to connect with other people, comes over as neurotic, rude, and requires a special handler who acts as his go-between with the rest of society. Now a set-up like that sounds a TV series all in itself. The brilliant but weird investigator and his “Watson” has been a popular formula in recent years. So it is a little surprising that Mark’s condition and his relationship with Dr Sheffield is just a side issue in this very science orientated episode. As with the earlier The Dead Past, Asimov is most concerned with the over-specialisation of scientists and the way that can cause them to miss vital discoveries.
Chartered spaceship the Gordon G Grundy is taking a party of scientists on a secret mission to the planet Troas, to discover what killed an entire colony. Amongst them is the intense and unpopular Mark Annuncio, raised to be a kind of human super computer. There seems to no obvious reason why the pioneers died. As outbreaks of mania begin affecting the scientists, the question arises, is the planet really inhabited after all by some kind of hostile lifeform?
Autism as a phrase may have been coined in 1938 but it is only relatively recently that it has come into the mainstream. Certainly watching this episode today, Mark clearly seems to be on the autistic spectrum, obsessed with learning facts, having no understanding of humour or metaphors, flying into violent anger when he is frustrated. What is disturbing is the suggestion that he has been deliberately made this way. Early on Dr Sheffield explains to the ship’s captain that mnenomics are raised in isolation from the age of five, trained to absorb knowledge and kept away from any human contact that might “contaminate” their minds and form normal patterns of behaviour. Even if the child was already diagnosed as autistic, this sounds like a horrific kind of child abuse, yet Dr Sheffield is unperturbed and the captain makes no protest either. There is a whole story just there and potentially a better one than the scientific investigation that follows.
Sucker Bait is a serious minded play of ideas rather than action. As with many Asimov stories it essentially a series of conversations between scientists about a fantastical problem. This leads to the cast manfully tackling a host of jargon filled dialogue. The summit comes in the scene where Sheffield, a psychologist by profession, tricks the arrogant leader of the expedition Cinam into panicking over a made-up theory about Troas’ twin suns causing psychosis. Actor John Mellion has to deliver a whole stream of made-up science and it no wonder he has to take quite a few deep breaths and look slightly glassy eyed at points.
The technology of Television Centre is also stretched uncomfortably. The set rattles alarmingly whenever someone walks on the metal gangway and clanking sounds can be heard distractingly off-camera in some scenes. The planet surface is a claustrophobic rocky set where the astronauts frequently seem to be weaving around each other since there is so little space.
At the end the revelation of what has been killing the colonists comes as something of an anti-climax. I remember reading this story and I think it works better on the page. It is logical and ingenious but the whole scene feels a bit flat. Perhaps in part because we have just found out that a potentially exciting climax involving mutiny and the scientists being marooned on the deadly planet all took place off-screen between scenes. Yet its last moments are quietly affecting. Mark, who has been played well by young Clive Endersby, stares out at deep space and confesses that this mission has made him aware of his own mortality for the first time. “And there’s so much left to learn.” he says plaintively. The captain, who earlier been so hostile to his odd passenger, allows him to remain on the command deck this time, counting the stars.