by Clifford D Simak
Adapted by Robert Muller
Clifford D Simak is not as well-known an author as he once was, perhaps due to lacking a famous film adaptation of one of his works. Yet he is one of major figures of so-called Golden Age science fiction alongside the likes of Asimov, Heinlein and Clark, winning three Hugos, two Nebulas and several lifetime achievement honours. His work is notable for its quiet religiosity and recurring use of the rural Wisconsin landscape where he lived. His work has rarely been adapted for other mediums. Before Beach Head, the only example was The Outer Limits translating his uncharacteristically violent tale”Good Night Mr Jones” into the second season episode The Duplicate Man. Beach Head is much more typical of his style, a contemplative tale about the hubris inherent in the space explorers genre, as typified by Star Trek.
Even before they arrive on planet 0243/B, an Earth expedition is already troubled by the increasingly odd behaviour of its leader, Commandant Tom Decker. A veteran of thirty seven interplanetary missions, Decker’s sour personality seems to tipping into some kind of depressive mania, and the ship’s new medical officer and sole female crew member Cassandra Jackson is bearing the brunt of it. Expecting to find only the usual minerals and low level lifeforms, the scientists are amazed to discover 0243/B is home to an intelligent alien race, the first ever encountered by human space travellers. But their excitement turns to fear when the aliens’ first translated words are “You will never leave. You should not have come. You will die here.”
Beach Head is the first of four reconstructed lost episodes in the BFI box set. Combining a sound recording from 1969 with publicity photos, photoshopped images and CGI animation. Doctor Who fans will recognise the style. Indeed this episode was created by many of the talents behind the well-regarded Loose Cannon reconstructions of missing Doctor Who stories. They have done a creditable job at retelling the story, especially considering they only had a handful of photographs. It helps that the early robot sequences lend themselves to CGI, since the man-shaped robots are faceless and identical. Thanks to their many hours of work, we have a taste of what looks like one of series’ best-looking space opera stories.
If you like Ed Bishop, a familiar face and voice from Gerry Anderson’s shows, not to mention 2001 A Space Odyssey and countless British drama series, you are going to love Beach Head, since it feels as though two-thirds of this episode is made up of Decker declaiming his bitter philosophy to the crew. It seems what he has learnt from his years of exploring is that there is nothing in the galaxy that cannot be simply explained by basic human science, no extraterrestrial problem which his ship’s sophisticated technology cannot overcome. When Dr Jackson tells him she was inspired to become an astronaut to explore the unknown, he scoffs, “There is no Unknown. Only the unexpected.” Initially he talks about the emptiness of their mission, discovering worlds with nothing on them but rocks and poisonous insects. After they meet the aliens and hear their ominous yet oddly passive warning he becomes at first paranoid, then fatalistic, believing their indifference to his Earth ship a sign of their superiority. By the end of the drama he gives an explanation of sorts for his behaviour, that he has developed a sensitivity about dangerous planets, an oddly romantic notion and a sign of how his initial boorish pragmatism has been dented. His relationship with Cassandra Jackson remains ambiguous, hovering between attraction and distrust.
The nameless aliens are a rather endearing race with their large eyes, slightly goofy looking rubbery bodies and unhurried manner. The scene at the alien village is deliberately undramatic, but memorable for the sight of these beings in their cocoon-like houses. It would be the perfect cover for a SF novel. They are also a clever sleight of hand. We and the ship’s crew concentrate on them and expect them to produce the danger. Too late the explorers realise that the real threat comes from an unexpected environmental effect.
Whilst the robots from another lost episode The Prophet enjoyed a new lease of life in Doctor Who, the robot servants in this story have been lost to posterity outside of this reconstruction and that’s a shame because like the aliens, they are entertaining. Aside from their blank globe heads, their brightly coloured torsos remind me of the later Doctor Who robot the Kandyman An early scene sees the first pair pulling parts out of crates and reassembling more of their brothers, a neat and realistic idea.
Whilst most spaceship interiors in the series have been rather humdrum and conservative, designer Tony Abbott creates wonderful futuristic cabins and corridors with large sweeping curves, funky inflatable furniture and plenty of colour. They are of their time but they still look impressive now, in the same way the sets of The Prisoner have aged well. Similarly the alien planet’s surface, with white translucent foilage and trailing cobwebs is excellently realised and looks as good as any of Space 1999‘s alien worlds in a few year’s time.
The BBC felt confident enough in this production to enter it into the Festival Internazionale del Film di Fantascienza, but it failed to repeat the success of the previous year’s The Machine Stops. Perhaps part of the trouble was that whilst visually appealing and rich in atmosphere, the plot lack the growing tension and drive of that earlier gem. Beach Head deliberately ends in an ironic low-key manner. Our human adventurers finally face the alien unknown and find it uncaring as it defeats them, leaving them marooned and helpless. Too late they understand the mystery why the natives of this world are sophisticated, yet have such a primitive stone-age lifestyle. Judging by this reconstruction, this episode is a creditable example of thoughtful literary SF.