by Mordecai Roshwald
Adapted by J B Priestley
The Bomb and the Cold War cast a long shadow over post-war science fiction, especially in film and television. It gave an atmosphere of suspicion and a down-beat feeling about our future and our endeavours to many a story, whether the subject matter directly addressed nuclear war or not. Just like Dr Strangelove, Level 7 is satirically concerned with the minds behind the military, government and armageddon, but finds that mentality considerably less amusing.
It was an audacious plan. Take the brightest and best young members of the armed forces, screen them for suitability and seal them 4500 feet beneath the ground in a secret underground world, the lowest level of a vast bunker. Here they would control the nuclear arsenal of the country and be able to retaliate against the enemy in complete safety from any nuclear reprisal. Level 7 was now their whole world for the rest of their lives, computer designed to be perfect, where the 50/50 split of men and women would eventually marry and raise the next generation of dedicated operators and Level 7 citizens. Everything has been planned for, nothing can possibly go wrong…
At first it seems this episode is going to be another story of an enclosed artificial society going off the rails because of its internal flaws. For a while it follows that pattern, with X127 (Keith Buckley) discovering that he and his eventual wife R747 (Michelle Dotrice) have very little room to be individuals or experience much of what humanises us. Then World War Three begins and a new story takes its place, the arrogance of military leaders who value winning and jingoism over human life, learning too late that the fallout of a nuclear war does not care about sides, and it is far too powerful to be safely managed.
Level 7 works better as an allegory about the horror of nuclear war and the fact that no side can win, rather than a realistic story, since it never really deals with all the practicalities of such a scheme. In Roshwald’s original novel, we start inside the bunker when it has been running successfully for years and protagonist is indoctrinated to this odd society thus skipping some awkward questions. The television episode by contrast deals with the beginning of the plan, when the inhabitants arrive having been told they are going on a training exercise for the weekend. Abruptly the doors are locked and they are told they are never going to return to surface again or have any contact with their old lives. Furthermore their names are changed to numbers and they are told never to use their own or other’s names again. This is pretty extreme and yet not one of the volunteers protests or panics. Granted some seem to have volunteered, but it is clear many of the soldiers had no idea when they arrived. It is explained that one of the criteria is that none of them are married or have children, but it seems incredible that they are all prepared to go along with an plan that they have been deceived into. Even the most rebellious character we meet, X117 (David Collings) merely grumbles about the situation as if it was a delayed flight. Furthermore surely some of their families would start to ask questions when their sons and daughters disappeared on a top secret mission without warning?
The way the planners have assumed that a 50/50 mix of men and women will simply pair up may seem naïve but I regard that more as a satirical joke on the ridiculous attitude of military mind, rather than a mistake of the writers. Another clever plot device is the two man safety protection for the launching of the missiles. Initially the General (Anthony Bate) explains that the two operators who must simultaneously press their buttons to launch the missiles, are there to ensure human judgement takes precedent over that of the strategy computer. The simulated drills quickly prove that the opinions of the operators are immaterial. The system in fact depends of them obeying like robots. When X117 refuses to press his button during a drill, the button is pushed anyway by the General and X117 is punished ultimately with a lobotomy for disloyalty.
When the nuclear contamination inevitably seeps into the bunker, despite the confident predictions of the military experts, rather than weeks of vomiting, sores and cancer, it arrives as a rather poetic paralysing death. Again this fits an allegorical story rather than a hard science one. Aside from saving the production a lot time consuming make-up, it does create some chilling scenes of rooms filled with frozen bodies.
Watching these episodes in order, perhaps the biggest problem with Level 7 is that is echoes several earlier stories in content and message. So it does not have as much impact as it might have had, having already seen Some Lapse in Time, Thirteen to Centaurus and The Machine Stops. It is handsomely made with some effective sets by Norman James and good direction from Rudolph Cartier, the director behind those earlier SF television touchstones Quatermass and 1984. An intelligent, inevitably depressing, argument against anyone who believed that a nuclear war could be anything other than mutually assured destruction.